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5 Questions With... Jill Robinson (JASPER'S STORY)

by Jill Robinson
March 8, 2013
Jill Robinson MBE, Dr.med.vet. h.c. has been a pioneer of animal welfare in Asia since 1985 and is widely recognised as the world’s leading expert on the cruel bear bile industry, having campaigned against it since 1993. In 1998, she founded Animals Asia, an organisation that is devoted to ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam by promoting compassion and respect for all animals, and working to bring about long-term change. From starting Animals Asia out of her front room, Jill has built the organisation into a respected international NGO with over 300 staff, an annual turnover of more than US$9 million, award-winning bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam, headquarters in Hong Kong, and offices in Australia, China, Germany, Italy, the UK, US and Vietnam.

The sad practice of bear bile farming is central to JASPER’S STORY: SAVING MOON BEARS. Can you tell us about the origins of and efforts to stop this tradition?

More than 10,000 bears—mainly moon bears, but also sun bears and brown bears—are kept on bile farms in China, and around 2,400 in Vietnam. The bears are milked regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine.

Bile is extracted using various painful, invasive techniques, all of which cause massive infection in the bears. This cruel practice continues despite the availability of a large number of effective and affordable herbal and synthetic alternatives.

My personal journey with the bears began following my first visit to a bear farm in 1993. On that memorable day, I joined a group of tourists and went "undercover" to investigate a practice I'd heard about, but never seen. There, in this horrible dark room, staring at row after row of caged and tortured bears…I had never seen such treatment of animals, or felt such shame of being a human being.

Walking past the cages, I suddenly felt something touch my shoulder. There was a female moon bear with her paw stretched through the bars of the cage. Without thinking of the consequences, I somewhat stupidly held her paw. Rather than hurting me, she gently squeezed my fingers and her beautiful brown eyes blinked sorrowfully into mine—with a message that was clear. I never saw her again, but that one bear, Hong, began the dream of the moon bear rescue campaign we now have today.

In 1998 I founded Animals Asia and today, we have rescued 285 bears in China and 112 bears in Vietnam. I love their quiet intelligence, their charismatic natures, and their forgiveness. They have a sense of fun out here in our grassy enclosures that defies their years of torture and suffering on the farms.

Animals Asia's strategy to end bear farming includes constructing and managing sanctuaries in China and Vietnam, reducing demand through working with the traditional medicine community, monitoring the legal and illegal trade in bear bile, running extensive public awareness campaigns highlighting the cruelty of the industry, and engaging with governments and policy makers in Asia and across the world.

You’ve dedicated your life to rescuing moon bears through the Animals Asia foundation. What makes the story of Jasper remarkable and in what ways does it represent the plight of other moon bears in Asia?

Jasper’s story is remarkable in that it simply and effectively exposes the reality of the bear farming industry. I will never forget the shock of seeing Jasper’s mutilated abdomen for the first time as he lay there helpless, vulnerable, and unable to move in his cage. Part of a group of 63 very sick bears, Jasper represented the gruesome truth of the trade which sees thousands of bears suffering on the farms.

As remarkable as Jasper is, we have come to learn that he is really no different to the nearly four hundred equally remarkable bears that we have rescued so far. It is hard to believe that they are crushed and abused on these hideous farms, but ultimately grow to forgive the same species that has caused them so much physical and psychological pain.

Jasper’s forgiveness especially is legendary and he is an extraordinary character. He welcomes new arrivals with the friendliness of an old patriarch and still finds time to rough and tumble with the juveniles in what we affectionately term a “bear bundle.” Almost every time I walk past where he sleeps out in the enclosure, I call his name and see his big Mickey Mouse ears prick up before he lifts his head and glances my way. It’s not long before he wanders over for some treats, and gently licks peanut butter from my fingers.

Jasper suffers from physical and emotional scars as a result of his treatment. How did you and your co-authors balance the severity of the abuse with enough hope that the story is appealing to young readers?

Co-author Marc Bekoff and I are great believers in the “individual,” and that one’s own compassion starts with being kind and respectful to every person or every animal you meet. In this way, whole species themselves can be protected by those influenced by just one bear, one dog, one tiger, or one bee. Every species has a role to play in the ecosystem and, as the species responsible for so much of the earth’s destruction, it is our moral duty to change and encourage others to change.

Jasper was given a second chance after being so badly abused on the farm and, through his forgiveness and charismatic nature, he now reaches out and influences the hearts and minds of everyone who reads his story. On a personal level, Jasper makes us realize why we are here—and I often say that he rescues us every bit as much as we rescued him.

What reaction do you hope for from readers who may have never seen a moon bear or been exposed to the practice of bear farming?

I hope that readers will connect with a beautiful, majestic bear who turns a life of misery into one of pleasure and hope, and whose story shows that every single one of us can make a difference. I hope that readers will reflect on the smallest things we can all do each and every day, which can help literally millions of animals across the world.

What are some of the best books and resources available for our members to educate their students about fighting animal cruelty and helping moon bears specifically?

The best resource is our website, which also contains a great kids’ page. Please visit www.animalsasia.org.

We also have a great Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AnimalsAsia

There is a wonderful film about our rescue of bears: CAGES OF SHAME. It’s the revelatory account of Animals Asia’s rescue of 10 bears from a bile farm in China. Directed by Martin Guinness and featuring narration by Emmy Award-winning actor Peter Coyote, the emotional tale of success against all odds was the winner of the Humane Society of the United States 2011 ACE Documentary Film Grant. More on the film is available at the website www.cagesofshame.com.

For younger children, the books I would unhesitatingly recommend are:

KIDS & ANIMALS by Marc Bekoff, with a foreword by Jane Goodall
JASPER'S STORY: SAVING MOON BEARS by Jill Robinson and Marc Bekoff

For older students:

IGNORING NATURE NO MORE: THE CASE FOR COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATION, edited by Marc Bekoff
THE EMOTIONAL LIVES of Animals by Marc Bekoff
THE EXULTANT ARK by Jonathan Balcombe
Any of the books by Dr. Dame Jane Goodall!

Finally, our USA office can send more information to all inquiries. Email info@animalsasia.org or call (415) 677-9601.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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